US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced confidence on Wednesday that Israeli and Palestinian leaders both wanted peace as he called for progress “as soon as we can” in moving towards talks.
After stops in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Kerry arrived in Jordan where he was to focus his energies on drawing Israel and the Palestinians back into direct negotiations after a hiatus of nearly three years.
On his fifth trip to the region in as many months, Kerry was to meet King Abdullah II in Amman before holding talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, then meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Jordan’s capital a day later.
“I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible. But it’s difficult — we all know how difficult,” Kerry told reporters in Kuwait shortly before taking off for Amman.
But in an illustration of the uphill battle Kerry faces, an Israeli planning committee on Wednesday granted final approval for the construction of 69 new settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
“The municipal committee has today given its final approval for the construction of 69 homes in Har Homa,” said Jerusalem councillor Meir Margalit, describing it as a “blind provocation against Kerry”.
“It proves just how much the government of Bibi (Benjamin) Netanyahu wants peace,” he retorted.
Har Homa is a particularly contentious area on Jerusalem’s southern outskirts where construction is likely to have a serious impact on the sector’s boundary with the West Bank, experts say.
The last time the parties held direct negotiations was in September 2010, but they broke down just weeks later when Israel failed to renew a freeze on construction of new West Bank settler homes.
The Palestinians want Israel to halt all construction and accept the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations, while Israeli officials say they will only talk if there are no such “pre-conditions”.
On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority reaffirmed its position on settlements and 1967 lines, dismissing as “misleading” Israeli reports that Abbas was poised to water down his stance following pressure from Kerry.
“The Palestinian leadership has supported Secretary Kerry’s initiative… Unfortunately, the Israeli government continues with policies on the ground that contradict and prejudice the very outcome of negotiations,” it said.
Earlier, Kerry admitted both Abbas and Netanyahu had “been tested” but described them as “very skilled veterans” of Middle East politics.
“I am quite confident in their serious commitment of purpose,” Kerry said. “I believe they believe the peace process is bigger than any one day or one moment.”
Netanyahu, who already had a tense relationship with Barack Obama during the US president’s first term over pressure on the peace process, emerged from January’s elections with a hardline coalition deeply sceptical of compromise.
Even within his own Likud, Netanyahu is losing ground to the radical right.
Hardline Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, who earlier this month said the coalition would oppose moves towards a Palestinian state, is poised to take over several key positions within the party.
Coalition partner Naftali Bennett, who heads the far-right Jewish Home party, said the Palestinian issue was akin to “shrapnel in the buttocks” — something that Israel simply had to live with.
Kerry has steered clear of setting a deadline but said he hoped for progress “as soon as we can” — especially before the annual UN General Assembly in September, when Abbas could make a fresh bid to rally international support.
“Long before September, we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way because I don’t think we have the luxury of that kind of time,” Kerry said.
“The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don’t want things to happen.”
But he eschewed the idea of establishing a timeframe, saying: “Deadlines can become self-imposed hurdles, and in fact impediments, to actually making progress.”
Netanyahu has said his goal is not just to “tick the box of starting negotiations” but to persevere in talks “to deal with the issues and reach an agreement that will resolve the essential issues of the conflict.”
Kerry’s stops in Qatar and Saudi Arabia focused mostly on coordinating assistance to Syrian rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
On his visit to Kuwait, he thanked the oil-rich state for hosting an international conference in January that raised some $1.6 billion (1.2 billion euros) in humanitarian assistance for victims of Syria’s conflict.